it's complicated

The Moment When We Stopped Being Just Friends

Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

Welcome to “It’s Complicated,” a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.

Apparently, I was skulking the first time we saw each other, in a hoodie with the hood up, slunk down in my chair near the front of the room. In a way the opposite of N., professional, alert, in pearls no less, but as far from the front of the room as she could get. Our own particular iterations of trying/not-trying.

We were in teacher training, freshman composition, on different tracks of the same graduate English program. We were in a small-group discussion together, but I don’t remember what we discussed. Forgive me, but I didn’t know she had a girlfriend, or would have a girlfriend, until she came with her girlfriend to a reading. Her visiting girlfriend — she lived on the other side of the country.

N. and I started driving to school together; we were nearly neighbors, it turned out. Because we had that time in the car, or because who knew a graduate English program in western Massachusetts would be so straight, we had to tell each other everything. On the slow crawl down Route 9 from Northampton to Amherst we talked about when we were 12, when we were 18; when I was 12, she was 7, but we had both found ourselves in zines, Team Dresch, Portland, and an idea of Portland. Weren’t we speaking a language that no one around us understood? We went to a diner in a snowstorm, then walked home on Main Street, that only-people-in-the world feeling. Later (texting still relatively novel) what to do with the feeling but write, Thank you for hanging out?

Because she had a girlfriend. And with a determination I’m now surprised at, I told myself I wasn’t going to fall (again) for someone who was unavailable; I was ready for something more. I knew my own tendencies toward the allure of the unobtainable, and I think maybe I didn’t want to sully N. with that kind of allure? That sounds like hindsight talking. I didn’t know what she was thinking. She was warm and generous but boundaried, protected. Danger didn’t appeal to her, I could tell; she didn’t see the point. She had this little apartment with a turret, a tiny breakfast nook with a tiny table that fit right in, a bad cat. We watched movies on opposite ends of the couch. I hugged her good night with one arm: See you, pal. Five minutes later I’m home, texting, Thank you for hanging out.

Once she was sick and I brought her soup. Black-bean soup. With vegetables? I had already made it, I had extra. Later, she loved to bring that up as one of the best examples of my fumbling, my denial. I had the flu and you brought me old black-bean soup? Here’s what it was: a willingness to make a gesture, a refusal to hit the mark.

Sometimes I wasn’t even willing. When she moved (from five minutes away to one block away), I didn’t help her. I was busy, or choosing something else, I wasn’t obligated. And when she was hurt? Because helping with a move was something friends did, and weren’t we friends? And was this also something friends did — go together to a party, and need to leave together, necessarily? I didn’t want to leave; I was going to try flirting with a straight girl in our program, who, like many of us, had used the excellent grad-student health insurance to get these pretty cute glasses. N. left hurt, angrily.

What I realize now is that I thought the way to ignore one feeling was to manufacture its opposite. I went on dates and told her about them. I mentioned a girl I kept seeing around town and had half an eye on. I once called N. from a street corner in New York and asked her to look up the address of the not-sleazy by-the-hour hotel a friend had once mentioned, where I was hoping to realize a tryst with an unreliable Canadian. I invited N. over to a dinner party and spent the evening flirting with someone I was trying to care about flirting with. I remember N.’s face as she left my apartment when she realized the direction the night was headed, I saw her face but I ignored it, I went home with the girl and I left in the middle of the night, too sick of myself to sleep.

I sound horrible now — but N. had a girlfriend. I felt righteous and justified. I was angry at her for being hurtable, for allowing herself to acknowledge the tenderness between us. I hammered that tenderness down. I admired myself for my dazzling feats of compartmentalization. It would make sense to say now, one year shy of our ten-year anniversary, that I can’t fathom how I could have tamped down my feelings so fully, but I can fathom it. I understand. It was self-protection of the highest order. An instinctive sense of what would happen if I let those feelings go.

But of course we don’t “let” our feelings do anything. Suddenly it was spring. It’s such a cliché. Even more, everything about the day was springlike. She lived a block away from me and the sun was out and we walked to the Stop & Shop and bought a tiny grill, burgers to grill on it, vinho verde. She was wearing this thrift-store dress, green with white flowers, cut off with scissors above the knee. Her spring dress, she was happy, it was sunny and the weekend. We were sitting on her front porch in the infinite golden hour and all my feelings fell off the shelf.

I felt messy, elated. That golden day passed, and I didn’t say anything. We kept making plans the way we always had. We went together to the MFA prom because we were what, friends? The only queers in the department? For our birthdays, ten days apart in late May, we went out to dinner at the fancy French restaurant; we dressed up. I didn’t brush her leg with mine under the table, or touch her hand over it. I felt strangely, incredibly patient. I loved my feelings. I hugged her good night with one arm.

We had decided to have a joint birthday party. Didn’t friends do this? We knew more or less the same people in that small town. The day of the party I was in town doing errands and I saw the girl I’d been seeing around, whom N. called “the 22-year-old.” N. was only 25! But there was a difference. I had been introduced to the 22-year-old maybe once. The feelings I’d been having made me bold. I told her we were having a party, she should come, gave her the address; she surprised me by saying she’d try to be there. I must have had this crowning sense of the inevitable. Running both toward and away from something must have made sense in the hyped-up laser dome of my feelings.

The party was at N.’s house. Everyone we knew came. Our best friends from out of town came. N.’s girlfriend didn’t come; she was in Italy, or she had finals. N.’s best friend’s girlfriend was making mojitos. I carried them out to guests, tried to be the social glue between the artists and the grad students, exchanged proprietary glances and information with N. We were the hosts. She had on earrings and a long black dress that clung and moved. I wore a skinny leather tie. It turned out both the grad students and the artists were into dancing, surprise, and N. and I danced to hip-hop I didn’t know, not with each other, but in the same room, the same moment. I noticed this dip and roll she did with her shoulders. She’d roll her shoulders and look at me.

Eventually it was late. The moment when you realize that most of the party has fallen away. The 22-year-old walked in the door just as N. and I were heading outside to share a cigarette; we didn’t smoke, but we must have wanted to share something. We wanted to get ourselves out on the porch, alone. We sat on the steps. Close, for sharing. We had finished our cigarette. We were chewing leaves from our mojitos. N. put her head on my shoulder. I was somehow holding her hands. “We’re in trouble,” she said. Steps on the porch behind us, and it was the 22-year-old, head down and hands in pockets. “Hey,” I said. N. sat up. The 22-year-old turned around and paused to look at me, and I knew this was me making a choice. “Good night,” I said.

The Moment When We Stopped Being Just Friends